,PHILADELPHIA -- One by one, elbow to multi-million-dollar elbow, they will line up tonight at Yankee Stadium to be introduced as the best baseball players in the National League. To each, the All-Star Game will mean something. To Brad Lidge, it will mean his most unlikely save.
He was in that position once, in 2005, in Detroit and in many ways, in a dream. He was 28 and was the Houston Astros' closer-for-life, or so it must have seemed. He was four years into his career and already was receiving MVP votes. His pitches were fast. His career track was too.
"All I remember was that everything was going so fast at that time," Lidge was saying the other day, before heading to New York. "So it was tough to take everything in. Without a doubt, this time it will be different. This time, I am really going to try to sit back and enjoy things."
Some of that comes with age, and at 31, Lidge hears his professional calendar flipping. But most of it comes from what has happened in the two seasons following that All-Star appearance -- a disappointing postseason, a fall from popularity, a franchise giving up on him, an injury, another injury and finally a career rebirth that has left him as the most important player to a team with multiple superstars.
"He's been good," Charlie Manuel said, when asked if Lidge has been the Phillies' 2008 MVP. "He's been about as good as you can get. He's been very, very good."
And that has made Brad Lidge very, very thankful.
Tormented by injury earlier in his career, Lidge had surfaced high among the major leagues' most terrifying closers by 2005, riding a 97-mph fastball onto that All-Star roster. But soon after, everything started spinning the wrong way, particularly his slippery slider that Albert Pujols launched for a home run in Game 6 of the NLCS. The Astros were one out from the World Series and, though they would win the pennant in Game 7, Lidge's reputation had been vandalized. By the time Scott Podsednik of the White Sox staggered Lidge with a walk-off homer in the Series, the only way to recognize him as a one-time All-Star was to flip his baseball card over and double-check the copy.
By 2006, when he blew six more saves, Lidge's ERA had inflated from 2.29 to 5.58. After he coughed up a lead on Opening Day of 2007, he no longer was the Astros' closer. Lidge did manage 19 saves last season, but blew eight. By the offseason, he was available, and the Phillies would acquire him in exchange for Michael Bourn and Mike Costanzo. So desperate, apparently, was Ed Wade to make the deal that he even agreed to look the other way as Phillies stuffed the package with Geoff Geary.
Lidge was on crutches at the time, resulting in a conflict of baseball trading policies. One was to never trade for an injured player; the other was to always take a swing at an accomplished player Wade is ready to give up on. By the eve of spring training, Lidge was healthy. One pitch into it, however, and he was on his way to an operating table for knee surgery.
What were the odds then that five months later he'd be an All-Star closer for a first-place team, one with 55 strikeouts in 40 innings, a 1.13 ERA, 20 saves, a 2-0 record and a re-done contract that could be worth as much as $49 million over the next four years? No, at that point, two words could have characterized his chances to be in Yankee Stadium on All-Star Night: Stub Hub.
"When I got injured again, it was definitely a difficult week," Lidge said. "But I just tried to stay as upbeat mentally as I could. I told myself, 'OK, you are going to get surgery but you are going to be back; you are going to be ready as soon as possible.' I never let myself think negatively of it, even though in the back of the mind there obviously were some questions as to how fast I was going to recover and what I was going to be able to do when I got back"
The Phillies have two All-Stars, Lidge and Chase Utley. Pat Burrell was a finalist in the fan voting. Ryan Howard leads the National League in home runs and RBIs. Jimmy Rollins is the incumbent MVP. Cole Hamels, an All-Star last season, has a 3.15 ERA and is among the better left-handed starters in the sport. But the Phillies have been too inconsistent to have taken command of the N.L. East -- all of them, Burrell and Howard, Hamels and Rollins, even Utley, who will start tonight at second base ... all of them but Lidge, who has been 20-for-20 in save challenges.
If he were 19-for-20, the Phillies would be spending the All-Star break in second place.
"A lot of things that go into pitching," Lidge said. "There is never one thing. Your mechanics could be off a little bit. It could be a little confidence. But even though a lot was being said about me, I looked at what I had accomplished on the field and said, 'I am not that far off.' I had to tweak a couple of things. And when I came here, it was with a fresh start. So I told myself, 'There is no room for error over here, so just go out and do everything you can and you will be happy with yourself.' That's what I knew I had to do."
There is the chance that he will have to pitch tonight, closing down a victory for the National League. If called, he will serve. If not, he already will have happily picked up a win.